I had been touring San Francisco’s garbage infrastructure for two days now – prowling around the city’s transfer station, poking into its curbside bins, and following its garbage trucks. My hosts were Bob Besso, who worked for Norcal, the private company with which the city contracted to pick up refuse, and Robert Haley, from the Department of the Environment. Dressed in blue jeans and sneakers, Besso had the lankiness of a marathon runner. He was in his fifties, and he’d worked in recycling for decades. His and Haley’s easy-going attitude, and their penchant for plain speaking, were diametrically opposed to the formal inscrutability of New York’s sanitation operatives. The best part of hanging around Besso was his competitive streak: both he and Haley were walking poster children for Zero Waste. Who could throw out less? Who had more radically altered their lifestyle to leave a smaller human stain?
The Zero Waste concept was a growing global phenomenon. Much of Australia had committed to achieving the goal in 2010, and resolutions had been passed in New Zealand, Toronto, twelve Asia-Pacific nations, Ireland, Scotland, the Haut-Rhin Department in the Alsace region of France, and several California counties. So far, no community had reached this nirvana, a condition perfected only by nature. For humans to achieve zero waste, went the rhetoric, would require not only maximizing recycling and composting, but also minimizing waste, reducing consumption, ending subsidies for waste, and ensuring that products were designed to be either reused, repaired, or recycled back into nature or the marketplace. Zero Waste, said Peter Montague, director of the Environmental Research Foundation, had the potential to “motivate people to change their life styles, demand new products, and insist that corporations and governments behave in new ways.”
I didn’t take Zero Waste literally. I considered it a guiding principle, a rallying cry for green idealists. I understood its intensive recycling component, but what about goods that simply could not be recycled? Over lunch in a Vietnamese restaurant, I learned that Zero Waste wasn’t just rhetoric to Haley. “I don’t have a trash can at work,” he said. On his desk sat a grapefruit sized ball of used staples – ferrous scrap that he couldn’t bear to throw out. “If I’m going to be a leader in Zero Waste I have to live the life,” he said. I asked what affect this had on domestic harmony. “My partner is 99.9 percent with me,” he said, nodding enthusiastically.
“What’s the one-tenth-of-a-percent problem?”
“She draws the line at twist ties.”
“Well you know you could strip the paper from the wires and –” I interrupted myself. Haley already knew how to recycle a twist-tie. At home, he was diverting 95 percent of his waste from the landfill. The 5 percent he threw out was “manufactured goods” – recently some beyond-repair leather shoes. Worn out sneakers, of course, were mailed to Nike, which shreds rubber and foam into flooring for gyms. The company accepts non-Nike footwear too, and is also trying to tan leather without questionable toxins and developing shoes made of a new rubber compound that doubled as a biological nutrient – something that could be harmlessly returned to nature. This would be quite an improvement, since according to designer William McDonough conventional rubber soles are stabilized with lead that degrades into the atmosphere and soil as the shoe is worn. Rain sluices this lead dust into sewers, and thence into sludge bound for agricultural fields. According to the National Park Service, which has more than a passing interest in manmade stuff that lies around on the ground, leather shoes abandoned in the backcountry last up to fifty years (if they aren’t eaten, one presumes), and rubber boot soles go another thirty.
McDonough’s 206-page book, Cradle to Cradle, was printed on “paper” made of plastic resins and inorganic fillers. The pages are smooth, and waterproof, and the whole thing is theoretically recyclable into other “paper” products. The book weighs one pound, four ounces. A book of comparable length printed on paper made from trees weighs an entire pound less. “What do you think of that?” I asked Haley. He nearly spit out his mouthful of curried vegetables. “McDonough’s book will be landfilled! I’d rather cut down a tree!”
To Haley and Bob Besso, landfilling was the ultimate evidence of failure. Avoiding the hole in the ground--which in San Francisco’s case was owned by Waste Management, Norcal’s archenemy--had become a game to them, albeit a game with serious consequences. Haley didn’t use his paper napkin at the restaurant, and he scraped the last bit of curry from his plate. But we all knew there was waste behind his meal – in the kitchen, on the farm, in the factory that made the boxes in which his bok choy had been carted to San Francisco.
I wondered if Zero Waste really meant anything, considering the limits of our recycling capability and our reluctance to alter our lifestyles. It was as dreamy an idea as cars that ran on water. And just as appealing to industry, too. “Zero Waste is a sexy way to talk about garbage,” Haley said. “It gets people excited.” I considered that for a moment. Could we solve our garbage problems by making garbage sexy?
Seeing how little I could throw out was fun for me, if not exactly sexy. I’d gotten caught up in the game, back home with my kitchen scale and Lucy’s blue toboggan. I recorded my weights in a little book, I crunched my numbers, and I measured my success by how many days it took to fill a plastic grocery sack.
In the months to come, I’d find people who neither lived nor worked in the Bay Area who were having fun (if not sexy fun) with garbage reduction. Shaun Stenshol, president of Maui Recycling Service, had toyed with the idea of decreeing a Plastic Free Month, but ultimately deemed such a test too easy. Instead, he issued a Zero Waste Challenge. Over the course of four weeks, Maui residents and biodiesel users Bob and Camille Armantrout produced eighty-six pounds of waste, of which all but four (mostly dairy containers and Styrofoam from a new scanner) was recyclable. Alarmed to note that 35 percent of their weight was beer bottles, which they recycled, the Armantrouts vowed to improve. Bob ordered beer-making equipment to help reduce the amount of glass they generated, and Camille promised to start making her own yogurt. Despite these efforts, the Armantrouts didn’t win the Challenge. The winner of the contest, as so often happens, was its inventor. All on his own, Stenshol had produced an even one hundred pounds of waste, of which he recycled ninety-nine pounds.
Fresh Kills Landfill
One of my favorite expeditions while researching Garbage Land, though this part of the story didn't make it into the book, was kayaking around the Fresh Kills landfill, on Staten Island, with Carl Alderson, a coastal restoration specialist who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. After a delightful paddle around the dump, Alderson and I narrowly escaped arrest by a sanitation cop only to end up in very shallow water with the tide going out.
… For several yards we poled and pried, but soon the kayak was stuck for good. Our car was parked a half mile up Main Creek, but the creek had turned into a mere trickle of brown water. Alderson seemed strangely optimistic. He checked the time on his cell phone and started muttering to himself about the tide. “Okay,” he said. “We can wait four hours till it turns, or try again to get upstream, or we can roll over the mud to the edge.” The edge, a field of waving Spartina patens, was about 60 feet away.
“How deep is the mud?”
“Over your waist.”
I thought about that. “Have you done it before?”
“Oh yeah. You’ve just got to keep from panicking. It’s like quicksand.”
Alderson was standing in the stern, wind-milling his arms to generate warmth. My feet were ice blocks. “Is that the wind?” he said, his voice rising, hair fluttering heroically. “It’s pushing the water back in!” It was the wind, but it wasn’t delivering any more water. The afternoon was just getting colder and more dismal. At least the snow had stopped.
Opening his cell phone, Alderson dialed the office of the William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge, where we’d picked up the kayak. “Hey, Linda. Could you do me a favor and check today’s tide chart?” He paused. “Uh-huh, you sure of that? Okay, thanks.” With a look of resignation, Alderson snapped the phone shut. He had another plan. “There’s a bunch of pallets in the refuge greenhouse, maybe we can get Sam and Nate to bring them down and make a path over the mud.” It seemed a little hare-brained to me – we’d need about fifty pallets - but I liked the idea of involving others.
Alderson slapped the mudflat with his paddle. It quaked. The mud didn’t look particularly ominous in the fading light, but I knew it was roiling with life, with the stuff that feeds the marsh’s birds, fish, and mammals. There were marine worms down there, some of them voracious predators more than five inches long, and lugworms and clamworms that ate algae or detritus extracted from the sand. These organisms were tough, able to withstand a half-day of submersion, a half-day of drought, baths of incoming salt water and rinses of sewage- and leachate-tainted fresh. Alderson advised his assistants to avoid touching the mud or water. A woman planting cord grass for him once fell in up to her baseball cap and emerged with a mysterious skin condition he called “full-body pink eye.”
“How deep did you say the mud is?” I asked Alderson for the second time in twenty minutes.
“You can’t tell,” he said. “It seems bottomless. The silt and organic layering have been going on for millennia. I’ve watched a few people go down in chest waders. It’s scary to watch someone sink deeper in muck and further in panic. I've dragged a few frightened folks out in my day.”
That shut me up. As we waited for Sam and Nate, I thought about how this landscape had changed. In the Paleo-Indian period, between 10,000 BC and 8,000 BC, the western side of Staten Island was a much higher and dryer place. We know that Lenape Indians occupied the area because they left their tools and high middens of clam and oyster shells behind. Sometime between 8,000 and 1,000 BC, rising sea levels created vast swamps on the western side of the island, at which time Lenape settlements became larger and more permanent. Eventually, Europeans would grow salt hay in these marshes, and it would become Staten Island’s largest cash crop. Just two hundred years ago, before the hydrology of the swamps had been altered, both Richmond and Main Creeks were navigable for more than a mile. Today, the island’s biggest export was garbage.
With a low whine, a golf cart kitted out with a forklift emerged from the dun-colored reeds. While Sam and Nate – vague figures in dark clothes—struggled with the pallets, Alderson lounged like a beer drinker in a lawn chair and offered encouraging suggestions. “Not too far apart, boys.” They grunted. “So did you know we all passed the navigation course?”
“Yeah, Carl,” said Sam, with no affect. “But when are they teaching the course about tides?”
Alderson laughed, his eyes crinkling. “I guess that’s next,” he said.
Sam dropped the pallets onto the mud, then went back to the greenhouse for more. When the makeshift dock stretched twenty feet, Nate, a burly young man in chest waders, went to the end and strapped on a pair of mud shoes. These resembled snowshoes but were made of webbed rubber that collapses when the foot is lifted and spreads out, like a heron’s foot, when it’s plopped down. With his thick beard and rubber clothing, Nate looked like a vulcanized hero from the underworld. He trudged toward us in a hulking manner. In his hand was a length of frayed rope. If he had a plan, no one knew it. I watched with growing fascination as he drew nearer--slop, slop, slop. Alderson sat still. I sat still. Nate reached the boat, still silent. Now he tied his line to our bow cleat, turned around, and heaved the boat forward and up the sloping mudflat.
“Wow,” I said. Alderson nodded at me and smiled. Barehanded and coatless, Nate hauled on the line again and again. “Shouldn’t we get out?” I asked Alderson. “Nope,” he answered. Apparently, there was just enough water in the mud to lubricate our passage. It dawned on me that Alderson and the boys had been through this routine before, in exactly these positions.